Not Cool

Some districts take on the heat with altered schedules, calendars

PHOTO: Klearchos Kapoutsis

With an increasing overlap between back-to-school season and the dog days of summer, some Colorado school districts are taking aggressive steps to address hot classrooms and listless students — including starting the year with shorter days.

But while these scheduling changes may help solve the heat problem, they have implications for a variety of other things, ranging from instructional time to parent work schedules.

In the Poudre School District, which starts today for two grade levels and tomorrow for the rest of the district, elementary and middle school students will be released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Meanwhile, at the south end of the state, Pueblo City Schools has moved its August start date to September 2 for most schools, largely to avoid the worst of the late summer heat.

Poudre district officials, aware that their early release “heat days” won’t please everyone, have emphasized that it’s a pilot effort that will be re-evaluated this fall.

“We’ve said to our community, ‘We’re trying this out. Come along with us on this journey,’” said Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications.

Parent Shannon Smith, whose son is in eighth-grade, said, “I understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nuts.”

In Pueblo, besides changing the calendar, administrators have met several times over the summer to discuss heat mitigation in case the district gets hit with any scorchers in September. Their plans include creating water stations in school hallways, having custodians arrive early in the morning to let cool air in and rotating students through cooler areas of schools.

“We are taking a very proactive position this year,” said Scott Jones, the district’s director of public relations. “It’s Pueblo….It can get very hot.”

Like many communities across Colorado, both Pueblo and Fort Collins suffered through sweltering heat last August when school started. The high temperature was 99 degrees in Fort Collins on Poudre’s August 20 start day last year and 94 degrees in Pueblo when that district’s students started six days later. The high temperatures stuck around in both districts for the first two weeks of school.

This year, the forecast for the next two weeks is considerably more moderate, with temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s in Fort Collins and the 80s and 90s in Pueblo.

Acknowledging the irony, Clark said, “There’s always Murphy’s Law, right?”

Simple question, complicated answer

Bert Huszcza, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Business Officials, said that complications due to hot weather stem from the fact that districts have increasingly pushed their start dates earlier in August.

“A lot of it’s tied into the testing that’s mandated,” he said.

Poudre parent Julie Trombley, whose two daughters are in fifth and eighth grade, is glad that administrators there are addressing the heat issue, but wonders why the district can’t start school after Labor Day or invest in more capital improvements to cool the schools.

“We’ve had a few years of ‘Oh, this is so hot,’” she said. “It just seems like a continuing problem.”

While starting school later in the summer was one of 15 solutions that Poudre’s heat advisory committee considered during 20 hours of meetings last fall, Clark said it was problematic for a variety of reasons. Few committee members wanted to extend the school year into June, delay the end of first semester until after winter break or tinker with instructional time before established state and national testing dates. An altered calendar also created potential mismatches between Poudre’ s vacation calendar and that of Colorado State University, where many district parents are employed.

“It’s a very simple question with a very complicated answer,” she said.

As for the 18 hours of instruction that will be lost to heat days this year, about half  of that time will be recaptured by an additional day of instruction that replaced what was formerly teacher work day. Teachers will decide how to make up the additional time on their own.

Cool it

The impact of heat on Colorado schoolchildren varies widely—and often depends when their schools were built and how subsequent capital improvement funds were allocated.

Huszcza said air conditioning is standard issue in most new schools, but isn’t in older buildings. And while some districts have retrofitted their old buildings with air conditioning systems, it can be costly and difficult.

“You’re talking about facilities where there’s no place to put venting,” he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools, a suburban district with many newer schools, is one of the lucky ones. It has air conditioning in 135 of its 155 schools. Those that don’t have it are all “mountain schools” at elevations above 7,500 feet.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools also has air conditioning in all 59 schools, Mesa County Valley District 51 has air conditioning or swamp coolers in all 43 schools, and Adams 12 Five Star has air conditioning in all 49 schools.

But other districts, including Denver, Poudre and Pueblo, have many buildings that are neither air-conditioned nor cooled using other systems. In Poudre, only nine of 50 schools have cooling systems.

“That will bring your temperature down but it’s not air-conditioned like your house,” said Clark.

In Denver, where classes start for most students next Monday, 79 of the district’s 187 schools have no air conditioning or only partial air conditioning. All those schools have received portable cooling units this year.

In addition, ventilation systems have been checked to confirm proper air flow, fans are being placed in hallways and classrooms and custodians at those schools may arrive as early as 5 a.m. to let in cool morning air. If the heat gets really bad, individual principals have the option of releasing students early.

Shuffling schedules

While many Poudre parents agree that classrooms were hot and uncomfortable last August, this year’s heat day plan creates hassles of a different sort. For some families, it’s the inconvenience of making alternative child care or pick-up arrangements. For others, it’s the scheduling puzzle of earlier sports practices.

“If I had a K-5 kid I’d be really mad,” said Smith, who works full time.

For a fee, the district’s after-school care program is providing child care in district schools during the two-hour heat day window. While some parents are upset about the early release schedule, Clark said feedback from surveys indicated that parents wanted an established plan, not last-minute announcements about isolated early release days or days off.

For Smith’s 14-year-old son, it’s cross-country practice, not after-school supervision, that will likely pose the biggest challenge during the heat day period. Instead of the usual 2:45 p.m. start time, his coach will hold practice at 6:15 a.m. for the next two weeks.

“He’ll get up at 5 o’clock,” said Smith.

 

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.